Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘history

cover image for CathedralCathedral by David Macaulay

When lightning strikes and irrevocably damages the cathedral in a medieval French town, the church and citizens embark on the century long project of building a new, modern, gothic cathedral.

David Macauley’s classic has been updated with more accurate information and new color sketches.  I have to admit that I miss the black and white illustrations, but it’s also true that that’s mostly nostalgia talking.  Macauley’s art is as detailed and absorbing as ever, and together with the story he weaves, the pages bring to life a people and time long past.

cover imafe for Ellington Was Not A StreetEllington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

it hasn’t always been this way
ellington was not a street

Once upon a time, the greats of the Harlam Renaissance were more than just a memory.  They talked and laughed and sang and played and discussed the issues and events of the day.  Presented from the point of view of a young girl whose house was a gathering place for these great men, Ellington Was Not a Street shows readers how solid and real and human these legends were.  Told in poetry and pictures, Nelson’s rich and detailed illustrations are a perfect compliment to Shange’s elegant language.

The short biographies at the end was a wonderful addition, but the book did leave me wondering where all the women were.

cover image for Thunder RoseThunder Rose by Jerdine Nolen, illustrations by Kadir Nelson

Rose was born on an auspicious night, against a backdrop of thunder and lightning. Her parents knew as early as that first night that Rose was something special, full of power and talents beyond that of ordinary children.  As she grew, so too did the tales about the amazing things Rose could do.  But when drought threatens her family’s cattle, and the survival of her frontier town, can Rose fight weather itself to bring rain and thunder back to her home?

Told in the tall tale tradition, Thunder Rose is an engaging and delightful story of a confident young heroine.  The rhythm and imagery of Nolen’s words evokes the folklore that inspired her book, and Nelson’s illustrations are as wonderful as ever, with action and expression on each page.

cover image for Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Rolihlahla became Nelson when he began school and his teacher refused to call him by his Xhosa name.  Although life was not fair or easy for blacks in South Africa, Nelson Mandela worked hard and eventually became a lawyer.  As the South African government enacted more and more discriminatory and unfair policies, Nelson used his talents and education to defend his people.  Despite the danger of speaking out against apartheid, Mandela became a leader, organizing rallies in support of the rights of blacks and enduring years in jail in his fight for a better South Africa.

Kadir Nelson’s illustrations never fail disappoint, but this is a particularly gorgeous book.  His style is the perfect compliment to the history being told, presenting moments of quiet reflection or vibrant energy as needed.

cover image for We Are The ShipWe Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

The rule that barred blacks from joining the National and American leagues was never posted on a sign or written into law, but that didn’t make it any less real.  So greats like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson played instead for the Homestead Grays and other teams in the Negro League.  Adored by fans and treated like stars when they would tour in Latin America, the players in the Negro League still had to often take care to leave town before sundown when they were on tour in the US.

Full of stunning paintings and amazing stories, Kadir Nelson’s award winning book shares a part of history that is often overlooked.  While Nelson’s artwork is always the star of his books, the research and skill that went into the text is noteworthy as well.  Told in vernacular and from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who was alive to see the Negro Leagues in action, We Are the Ship‘s memorable voice appropriately centers the black experience rather than assuming a white audience.  The dynamic artwork captures a variety of experiences and moments, and suitably brings to mind both Norman Rockwell paintings and sports photography.

cover image for Coretta ScottCoretta Scott by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

When Coretta Scott was a young girl, she would walk five miles in the early morning dew just to attend school, while the white children rode the bus to theirs.  When she grew to be an adult she fought for equality, tirelessly and despite personal tragedy.

Shange’s poetry is once again elegant and evocative, while the repetition in Nelson’s always remarkable paintings this time also echo the rhythm of the text.  A part of me wanted more particulars in the poem about her work after her marriage, but the  short biography at the end of the book helped with that.

cover image for Balloons Over BroadwayBalloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Tony Sarg always loved puppets, even when he was a small boy.  When he grew up and moved to New York City, he made his living creating them for plays, musicals, and even store windows.  Then in 1924 Macy’s department store was so impressed with the window displays Sarg made that they asked him to help put on a holiday parade.  But Tony Sarg knew that for his marionettes to be seen by huge crowds standing on sidewalks, he would need to come up with something new, something BIG.

I’malways full of love for well written and illustrated non-fiction picture books, but this one is particularly wonderful.  Much has been made of the illustrations, and rightfully so.  Sweet’s use of mixed media is not only beautiful and appropriate to the topic, each style is put to the best use for illuminating different aspects of the story.  The text remains clear and understandable, but doesn’t shy away from evocative phrases like “They shimmied and swayed through the canyons of New York City” or unfamiliar words, such as “articulate.”  The scope of the book is perfect as well, it includes enough about Sarg’s childhood to help kids relate, but remains focused enough on a specific achievement to keep readers engaged.

cover image for Five Silly TurkeysCover image for Pete the Cat: The First Thanksgiving

Five Silly Turkeys by Salina Yoon

Babies and toddlers are sure to love the shiny, crinkly feathers that stick out from each page, but there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the rhymes or illustrations inside.

Pete the Cat: The First Thanksgiving by Kimberly and James Dean

Like a lot of cheap paperback spin-offs of popular picture book series, the quality of this title doesn’t quite match the original books. While the illustrator is the same, the authors are not, and it shows.  It’s also a fairly typical holiday book, and repeats all of the same myths about Thanksgiving.

Laurie Halse Anderson is best known for her award-winning young adult and middle grade novels, particularly Speak, Wintergirls, Fever 1793, and Chains. She is also the author of a rather interesting non-fiction picture book (illustrated by Matt Faulkner) about Sarah Hale, a 19th century American woman who transformed Thanksgiving from a regional holiday into a national one.*

cover image for Thank You Sarah
This morning I received an email from the publisher of a book titled Sarah Gives Thanks, by Mike Allegra and David Gardner, celebrating its placement on the Amelia Bloomer List, an honor intended to indicate that the children’s or young adult book in question has “significant feminist content.”
cover image for Sarah Gives Thanks

Now, I haven’t had a chance to read this new picture book (the local bookstores sent their copies back after the holidays) so what I am about to say is informed solely by the covers as well as the fact that Hale, as I understand it, is hardly a well-known person to be writing about,** but…WOW.  If that cover is any indication of what is inside, I’m perplexed to say the least.  A bit annoyed and insulted too.

Anderson and Faulkner’s Thank You, Sarah frames Hale as a woman who engages in intellectual pursuits and commands respect.  The title casts Sarah as a hero and invites us to thank her for what she has done.  The patriotic symbols that surround her are everyday ones that Hale, as an American citizen (albeit a non-voting one) could claim as her own and her due.

The Amelia Bloomer honored title, according to its cover, focuses on Hale’s experience with the domestic pursuit of cooking and frames her actions as being grateful and offering domestic niceties to others.  The patriotic building in the background is one that symbolizes power held, in Hale’s time, only by men.  It is possible that the intent was to create a type of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” vibe, but the combination of target audience, title, and pumpkin pie does quite the opposite.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Thank You, Sarah was never honored by the Amelia Bloomer Project despite (as far as I can tell) being eligible for it.

Weird stuff happens, praise-worthy does not mean perfect, books aren’t always like their covers (although picture books certainly ought to be), it is (in very specific circumstances sometimes) possible to praise men for work that women have also done and not undermine feminist goals, it is very possible to praise women for traditionally feminine tasks and not undermine feminist goals, the apparently derivative nature of the second work may merely be a matter of coincidence and the subject matter, and I’m quite certain this was not at all a deliberate insult to Anderson by the Amelia Bloomer Project.

Still, I am totally giving the Amelia Bloomer Project the side-eye right now.  Also Allegra, Gardener, and Albert Whitman & Co.

*Hale was a rather fascinating person and not without flaws.  Raised by parents who believed in education for women as well as men, Hale went on to write and edit for major US publications.  She was critical of slavery but supported sending freed slaves to Liberia.  Also, she popularized a holiday that celebrates genocide. So.

**I’m hardly going to argue that Hale is worth only one picture book.  I just find a second book about her within the span of a decade an interesting choice considering both how well known the first author is and how many other wonderful women don’t have any picture books about them at all.

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If there is one thing that is lacking among books for younger children, it’s good, quality, readable non-fiction.  (Aside from more diversity.  But that is sadly a given for all kinds of literature.) Especially books that have modern and understandable graphics.  There’s plenty of non-fiction, and there are plenty of readable titles.  There just aren’t many titles that do both – and most of those that do are decades old and show it.

Which is why I was so excited to stumble across the series I’m writing about today.  A loose collection of books about nature and people, National Geographic’s Picture the Seasons presents factual information about trees, spring, pilgrims and much more.  It does so at a level that is sparse and simple enough to be understandable to younger children, yet manages to never be stilted and disconnected, as non-fiction for early learners often are.

Not only are the photographs frequently stunning and the information up-to-date and accurate, the text flows well enough that I can read it aloud during story times. “Spring welcomes new arrivals” and is a time of the year when “warm breezes make tulips take a bow.” During winter, “open spaces sparkle in the sun and glitter purple-blue under the stars.”  And pumpkins don’t just come in many sizes, there are “wee ones, inches wide, or GIANT ones you can sit inside.”

The words and pictures expertly complement each other as well, which means I don’t always have to stop and and try to explain unfamiliar ideas using a lot of equally confusing terms – I can just point out the image that illustrates the concept.  It also allows for more descriptive and imaginative language.  Four year olds that might not otherwise understand what it means for spring to “drag a grey blanket across the sky” can see for themselves that the darkening clouds above a hillside do indeed look like a grey blanket.

There are a few mis-steps, such as when the book on apples decides that Johnny Appleseed warrants a mention, but overall the series is solid and enjoyable – and I wish there were more non-fiction books for younger children like them.

Bernard, Robin. (1999). A Tree for All Seasons. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Esbaum, Jill. (2009). Apples for Everyone. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Esbaum, Jill. (2009). Seed, Sprout, Pumpkin, Pie. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Esbaum, Jill. (2010). Winter Wonderland. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Esbaum, Jill. (2010). Everything Spring. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Esbaum, Jill. (2012). Cherry Blossoms Say Spring. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Goodman, Susan E. (1999). Pilgrims for Plymouth. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Best for Ages: 3 to 7